The boy who fell from a plane

Most teenagers would hate being sent to a Catholic residential school. For 14-year-old Keith Sapsford, there was no choice but to run away after just a couple of weeks. Taking matters into his own hands, the Australian teen snuck onto the tarmac at Sydney Airport — and climbed into an airplane’s wheel compartment to hitch a ride to Japan.

Unfortunately, his desperate plan to leave Australia was unwittingly inspired by his own father. Just months earlier, Charles Sapsford had warned his adventurous son about a Spanish boy who died after hiding in a plane’s undercarriage. But in February 1970, his child met a tragically similar fate.

The teen was confident that he’d avoid the dangers of high-altitude exposure by staying inside the airplane’s wheel-well. But he was tragically unaware that the compartment would reopen when the plane’s wheels retracted. Shortly after liftoff, he fell 200 feet to his death.

This is his story — from teenage runaway to stowaway — and how his fate was immortalized in an infamous photo.

Keith Picture Featured
The Tragic Story Of Keith Sapsford, The 14-Year-Old Stowaway Who Fell From A Plane

Keith Sapsford, The Teenage Runaway

Born in 1956, Keith Sapsford was raised in Randwick, a suburb of Sydney in New South Wales. His father, Charles Sapsford, was a university lecturer of mechanical and industrial engineering. He described Keith as a curious kid who always had an “urge to keep on the move.”

The teenager and his family had actually just taken an overseas trip in order to quench that thirst. But after they returned home to Randwick, the sobering fact that their adventure was over truly struck Sapsford. Simply put, he was restless in Australia.

The boy’s family was at a loss. Ultimately, it was decided that some semblance of discipline and formalized structure could whip the teenager into shape. Fortunately for the Sapsfords, Boys’ Town — a Roman Catholic institution in south Sydney — specialized in engaging with troubled children. His parents figured that’d be the best chance to “straighten him out.”

But thanks to the boy’s overpowering wanderlust, he managed to escape rather easily. It was only a couple weeks after his arrival that he ran off toward Sydney Airport. It’s unclear whether or not he knew where the Japan-bound plane was heading when he climbed into its wheel-well. But one thing’s for sure — it was the last decision he ever made.

The Falling Stowaway

After a couple days on the run, Keith Sapsford arrived at Sydney Airport. At the time, regulations at major travel hubs were not nearly as strict as they are now. This allowed the teen to sneak onto the tarmac with ease. Noticing a Douglas DC-8 preparing for boarding, Sapsford saw his opening — and went for it.

Douglas Dc 8 At Sydney Airport

It was pure happenstance that amateur photographer John Gilpin was at the same place at the same time. He was simply taking pictures at the airport, hoping one or two would be worthwhile. He didn’t know it at the time, but he would later capture Sapsford’s heartbreaking fall on camera.

It took a few hours for the the plane to depart, with Sapsford waiting in the compartment. Ultimately, the aircraft did as planned and took off. When the plane reopened its wheel compartment to retract its wheels, Sapsford’s fate was sealed. He fell 200 feet to his death, hitting the ground below.

“All my son wanted to do was to see the world,” his father Charles Sapsford later recalled. “He had itchy feet. His determination to see how the rest of the world lives has cost him his life.

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